True Immigrant Tales: “I Was Weak in the Knees”

      [Louis Adamic was a prominent Slovene-American writer who migrated to America in December 1913 at age 15.]

“Now and then I glanced at the noisy, picturesque, garlicky crowd on the steerage deck; people of perhaps a dozen nationalities milling around the capstans and steam-hissing winches, pushing toward the rails straining and stretching, catching a glimpse of the new country, of the city; lifting their children, even their infants, to give them a view of the Statue of Liberty; women weeping for joy, men falling on their knees in thanksgiving, and children screaming, wailing, dancing.

ImageArriving at Ellis Island

“From the ship we were transferred on a lighter to Ellis Island. . . . The day I spent on Ellis Island was an eternity. Rumors were current among immigrants of several nationalities that some of us would be refused admittance into the United States and sent back to Europe. For several hours I was in a cold sweat on this account, although, so far as I knew, all my papers were in order and sewed away in the lining of my jacket were twenty-five dollars in American currency—the minimum amount required by law to be in the possession of every immigrant before entering the country. Then, having realized away some of these fears, I gradually worked up a panicky feeling that I might develop measles or smallpox, or some other such disease. I had heard that several hundred sick immigrants were quarantined on the island.

“The first night in America I spent with hundreds of other recently arrived immigrants in an immense hall with tiers of narrow iron-and-canvas bunks, four deep. I was assigned to a top bunk. Unlike most of the steerage immigrants, I had no bedding with me, and the blanket which someone threw at me was too thin to be effective against the blasts of cold air that rushed through the open windows; so that I shivered, sleepless all night, listening to snores and dream-monologues in perhaps a dozen different languages. . . .
“Late in the afternoon on the last day of 1913, I was examined for entry into the United States, with about a hundred other immigrants who had come on the Niagara. . . .

ImageRMS Niagara

“The official spoke a bewildering mixture of many Slavic languages. He had a stern voice and a sour visage. I had difficulty understanding some of his questions.

“At a small table, piled with papers, not far from the examiner’s desk, was a clerk who called out our names, which, it seemed, were written on the long sheets of paper before him.

“When my turn came, toward dusk, I was asked the usual questions. When and where was I born? My nationality? Religion? Was I a legitimate child? What were the names of my parents? Was I an imbecile? Was I a prostitute? (I assume male and female immigrants were subjected to the same questionnaire.) Was I an ex-convict? A criminal? Why had I come to the United States?

“I was questioned as to the state of my finances and I produced the required twenty-five dollars.

“What did I expect to do in the United States? I replied that I hoped to get a job. What kind of job? I didn’t know; any kind of job.

“The inspector grunted vaguely. “And who is this person, Stefan—Stefan Radin—who is meeting you?

“I answered that Stefan Radin was the brother of a friend of mine, now dead.

“Then the inspector waved me out of his presence and the clerk motioned me to go back and sit on one of the benches nearby.

“I waited another hour. It got dark and the lights were turned on in the room.

“Finally, after dozens of other immigrants had been questioned, Steve Radin was called into the examining room and asked, in English, to state his relationship to me.

“He answered, of course, that he was not related to me at all.

“Whereupon the inspector fairly pounced upon me, speaking the dreadful botch of Slavic languages. What did I mean by lying to him? He said a great many other things which I did not understand. I did comprehend, however, his threat to return me to the Old Country. It appeared that America had no room for liars; America was glad to welcome to its shores only decent, honest, truthful people.
“My heart pounded.

“Finally, it occurred simultaneously to me and to Steve Radin that the man must be laboring under some misapprehension. And truly, before another minute elapsed, it turned out that the clerk had made a mistake by entering on my paper that I had declared Stefan Radin was my uncle. How that mistake occurred I do not know; perhaps the clerk had confused my questionnaire form with someone else’s.

“Finally, perceiving the error, the examiner’s face formed a grimace and, waving his hand in a casual gesture, he ordered me released. . . . I was weak in the knees and just managed to walk out of the room, then downstairs, and onto the ferryboat. I had been shouted at, denounced as a liar by an official of the United States on my second day in the country, before a roomful of people, including Steve Radin, whom, so far, I had barely glimpsed.

ImageEllis Island ferry boat

“But the weakness in my knees soon passed. I laughed, perhaps a bit hysterically, as the little Ellis Island ferryboat bounded over the rough, white-capped waters of the bay toward the battery.

“Steve Radin gaped at me. Then he smiled.

“I was in New York—in America.”

[Read more about immigrants and Ellis Island staff in my historical novel, Guardians of the Gate.]


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